Contre la lassitude (Against Weariness), by Hugo Pernet, 2007
Frédéric Houvert is a poet. This might sound like a wisecrack, but in a way it is how I see his work. And yet I absolutely hate it when the word “poet” – and the adjective “poetic” – is used to describe anything else but actual poetry. It is one of my obsessions, and I would immediately despise anyone who should make such a mistake. However, I now understand that there is simply no other word to describe his artistic nature: the paintings, sculptures and photographs he produces have an undeniable “poetic” quality (I swear I’ll die if I have to use the word again).
For years now, he has used the same stripped-down, plant-shaped cardboard stencils – as if he had cut them out directly from Ellsworth Kelly’s plant drawings. At first the result was rather decorative, somewhere between the world of wallpaper and ornamentation, yet showing a pictorial quality that clearly categorised it as painting: colours bleeding into the bare canvas, drippings, reliefs, overlapping layers… These Painterly stylistic effects doubled the appealing aspect of the motifs. This might well have been the work’s only flaw: making the painting a form of overdecoration (inasmuch as abstract expressionism and its outward signs of authenticity have already been around for a while).
A flaw, however, can become a quality – any dating site will tell you so. By repeating the same gestures with the same tools and same colour ranges, Frédéric Houvert ended up steering his works toward a subtle balance. The vegetal elements have dissolved into variations of black and grey, into the brightness of almost whitened shades of colour (sometimes set off with silver or gold paint), or on the contrary stand out more clearly from the background by contrast. What we see now seems to be unstable and changeable, dazzling or imperceptible, like silhouettes glimpsed through a curtain or shadows projected onto the surface of the canvas. This contemplative work, combined with a highly sophisticated form of pictorial narcissism, brings great joy to its viewer – the joy of imagining the artist letting the painting slowly form until it finally seems to come to a standstill in a specific shape – one of many among an infinite number of possible appearances. At this point in his career, I believe the cold preciosity of Frédéric Houvert’s paintings is delaying the reception of his work. Granted, this quality shelters him from the cynicism and opportunism that came with the revival of painting on the art market, but I believe it also leads some of his viewers to underestimate its artistic worth (in the name, as always since the Whistler trial in 1878, of the formalism invoked to discredit any work that does not seem to deal with a “real” subject). In a way, one could apply the same formula used by Ruskin against Whistler to literally describe Frédéric Houvert’s paintings; that is, he doesn’t mind “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face” – as a matter of fact, the paint F. H. uses really does come in pots. It is the same as the type used for interior decoration, the shades of which are made to match potted plants, designer furniture and contemporary art pieces. These colours are delicate but not particularly pleasant. They are often applied tone on tone, almost monochromatically, or on the contrary with a chiaroscuro effect, most often on vertical formats (large or small, sometimes square, and more rarely on large horizontal formats). Their names are an invitation to travel (Kerguelen, Istanbul, Morzine, Crimea), and can often be found in the title of the works themselves, sometimes paired with the name of the stencilled plant – Lolium Morzine or Laurus Istanbul, for example. Elsewhere, spray-painted colour may project the blurred image of palm leaves – or perhaps it is a fern or some sort of Monstera? (I don’t know much about plants and am no gardener, unlike Frédéric, who, it might be worth mentioning, also reads aquarist magazines). It is hard to tell paintings apart from each other. From what I know, a lot of them have disappeared, or have been unstapled and rolled up, if not simply destroyed.
This ephemeral nature can also be found in Frédéric Houvert’s sculptures, photographs, and drawings. While these denominations may indicate a mind for traditional artistic categories, all of these practices actually echo one another in his work: almost all of the sculptures are half-painted abstract objects (Jupiter or Platane); the photographs are “found” sculptures or presentations of sculptures in their natural surroundings (Au commencement); and the “drawings” are clearly more like paintings on paper. In Féroé, he photographed a white wooden structure on stilts on a beach, evocative of a post-apocalyptic skeleton of the Villa Savoye, or like the bust of the Statue of Liberty sticking out of the sand at the end of Planet of the Apes (1968) – a ghostly apparition that matches the aesthetic of his plant paintings and assumes a form of passivity that contrasts with the dogma of efficacy in painting, just as vegetal temporality differs from animal temporality (it just so happens that the few animals he depicts – snakes, birds, or fish – can be found in his more quickly executed works on paper). Perhaps it is precisely this shifting temporality that brings such a poetic1 quality to F. H.’s work, this intentional vagueness that surrounds his practice, and which he finds amusing himself, making sure he blurs the boundaries between naivety and romanticism, and between decoration and beauty.
While works of art do not grow in exhibition rooms, it should feel as if they do. F. H. gave this horticultural analogy a try several times – when he created an exhibition layout with wooden battens and clear plastic tarp (Serres), or with his sculptures Greffe and Herbier (in the first case, a painted “stake” grafted to a tree stump, and in the second, porcelain replicas of his plant stencils displayed on a glass stand). As an artist, I have always wondered how Frédéric managed to not become bored with these same themes. I have no answer to this question, but what I do understand by looking at his paintings and other works is that their temporality is different from what we are accustomed to seeing, that his work is slowly growing within itself, and that identical causes produce an infinite number of consequences. That art, in its plenitude, comes close to the things we will never tire of: glints of sunlight on the sea, clouds drifting across the sky, the feeling of wonder at the sight of the first snowfall on the city…
1 (I died.)